Canadian Woodworking

Models make the furniture design world go ’round

Blog by Rob Brown
Woodworking maquette

With my column a couple of weeks ago sharing the mosque model my daughter and I made for her school project, it reminded me of some of the furniture models I’ve made in the past.

I wrote an article way back in our June/July 2008 issue (3D Models: save time and money) about making a 3D model to work out construction, design and proportion details before starting to build the real piece of furniture. This is a technique I often use to make sure I waste less time and materials, and ensure the finished piece is as attractive as possible.

A reader commented on it the other day, mentioning how they would never start making sawdust without their design software nearby. I’m not saying they’re wrong, as everyone has their own approach. I’d just like to share a bit of my process for designing furniture and woodwork.

Christopher S. Souza:

I come from a robotics engineering background and have been using CAD, either AutoCad or Solidworks, for 40 years. I can’t imagine making sawdust without the laptop close by. You’ll definitely find obstacles and their solutions much easier on the screen than on the shop floor.

Rob Brown:

I think this is an option that might not work for everyone. I have nothing against computer design programs that allow you to build the entire piece virtually before you even enter the shop, but I don’t think that’s the solution for me. Obviously, Christopher has a firm grasp of CAD programs, which allows him to use the software to his advantage. When someone is that skilled and comfortable with that approach it’s going to provide many advantages.

Learning the software is an obvious hurdle. Spending the time and energy learning that is time you’ll lose in the workshop. And, let’s be honest, some folks simply don’t want to bring computers into the workshop. For many, time in the shop is time away from the digital world.

I used AutoCad to engineer furniture for a medium-sized office furniture company many years ago, so I have a half-decent understanding of what this software is capable of. I still feel the need to actually see the piece in real life to determine if the proportion, scale and other fine details are right. In addition to those who use a computer to work out details and others who make models to see a design first-hand, there are others don’t want to do any design work at all, preferring to use trusted plans to build their projects.

It's all in my mind

I find I spend most of my time and energy building the piece in my mind. I use paper and pencil to jot down some of the joinery details and work out just how these details might be brought to life. I find clearing my mind of everything else and just focusing on the piece gets me pretty far. Once I have a pretty good idea of the scale and shape of the piece, I often use 3D models to bring it to life. I use very simple materials and joinery techniques to save time and money. Often the piece is only partially complete, though from one or two angles all the pertinent info is there for me to see.

I’m quite sure this approach isn’t for everyone, though it’s how I’ve done things for a few decades now. I often find myself thinking, “I’ll work that out when I need to,” meaning I don’t need to know that design or construction detail before starting, as I can figure it out later. Sure, that sometimes causes problems from time to time, but I find visualizing how different parts come together makes design and joinery details more obvious.

I can hear the computer designers now. “This is why you build something virtually,” they’ll say. I understand their stance, but to me virtually isn’t quite clear enough. I do the majority of design work in my head (which, admittedly, isn’t overly “clear” to many folks!) along with some scribbles, then do the final 10% in the shop on the fly.

I find I will get to certain points in the construction process and have to pause to decide what my next move will be. At that point I’ll go through all the upcoming stages to make sure I’m not missing something, then get back to work. Honestly, there are times when I wish I could turn back the clock and add some sort of machining to a part that’s already been assembled, but that rarely occurs. I can usually modify my approach at that point to make up for my oversight.

How about you?

When you’re making a piece of furniture in your shop what approach to design do you take? Do you use software to build the piece virtually, so no surprises arise during construction? Do you just wing it, and deal with the mistakes as they come? Are you like me, and build the piece in your mind as much as possible, and maybe make a 3D model? Or are you someone who relies on published plans to take care of all the design and construction details?

Learning what others do might help some of us choose an approach to designing furniture, or possibly help us refine our current approach. Whatever the scenario, it’s always great to hear from others about how they work.

Looks Complete

This is a model I made while designing a side table. I used cut 2x4 and 2x6 material to make the legs, rails and headers for the top, and 1/8" thick Masonite for the gable panel and drawer fronts. Rather than make three separate drawer fronts, I made one large panel and used a Sharpie marker to add the gaps and pulls. That was enough for a strong visual and it was simple and quick to complete.

Woodworking maquette

Only Partly Complete

When viewed from a different angle you can clearly see I didn’t add any parts that weren’t needed. This was partially to save material, but mostly to speed the process. I felt I could get a good idea of how the whole piece would look even though the entire piece wasn’t modelled. A top panel, complete with solid wood headers, would have been the next part to add, which would have given me a good idea of how the table would look from above, but I didn’t think this situation called for it.

Woodworking maquette

The Finished Table

Here’s the completed pair of tables.

Rob Brown - bedside tables

Sideboard Model

Continuing with the pussy willow motif, this sideboard model helped me refine the proportions of the case and doors as well as allow me to quickly play around with the location of the pattern on the doors.

Sideboard Model

Sideboard Cabinet

The completed black walnut sideboard cabinet. The doors are laser cut stainless steel.

Rob Brown - Sideboard Cabinet

Coffee Table Leg Model

Rather than model the entire coffee table, I just made a model of the rails-to-leg joints. This helped me work out where and how the rails joined the legs.

Coffee Table Leg Model

Finished Coffee Table

This photo was taken with the glass top removed. I hope you’re not getting too sick of the same motif. It’s something I included on a number of pieces of furniture a few years ago.

Rob Brown - Coffee table

Arc Coffee Table

Here’s the completed table with Macassar ebony for the base and tamo ash for the top.

Rob Brown: Arc Coffee Table

Final Model

This is the model I finally settled on, but there were many other variations.

Final Model

Similar to the Final Version

Very similar to the final version, this version had a contrasting veneered edge surrounding the top.

Similar to the Final Version

Playing Around

I think I used cardboard to model the different base designs for this table. The size of the model is quite small; about 8" long.

Playing Around

Not All Home Runs

You often have to rule out the ugly designs before finding the best design.

Not All Home Runs

Play Around

The shape of the base was so interesting that I found it hard not to play around with it to model other designs before shipping the final table to the client.

Play Around
Last modified: June 29, 2023

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches


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  2. Hi Rob, I do like the idea of building models, but usually find myself sketching, then building. Adjustments are made as I move through the project. I’m a relative beginner, and a hobbyist, giving me the freedom of no timelines. To date , I’ve made many keepsake boxes, lamps, shelving, and in the past year or so, made 6 pieces of furniture. I work in my apartment, with a bandsaw and hand tools,…and love every minute I get to “make” things.
    Thank you so much for all the articles, you’ve inspired me.

  3. Hi Charles,

    Thanks for the comment. I love your comment about how the project / design rotated in your head as you drift to sleep. I agree 100%! Times when you’re just doing nothing else are the best times to design in your head.

    You should email me a few photos of the pieces you’ve made that you’re most pleased with. I’d love to see them.


  4. Your system is quite similar to mine. I’m often inspired by something I see in a magazine or online but it’s only the beginning of the design journey. I never copy anything and loathe trying to make something from generated plans. But I start with an idea kickstarted by something I’ve seen and then generate new iterations ( by changing a stool into a hall table for example). Once I come up with something I like I’ll start imagining it in my head,often picturing it rotating over my head as I drift off to sleep,changing proportions,trying different joinery,taking it apart and reassembling it. This can go on for anywhere from a few days to several months before it gets set ,then I start making sketches and ultimately measured drawings. I can’t do anything with a computer ,I learned technical drawing in highschool when you used a T-square, triangles and a pencil. If the project has a number of curves, especially compound curves, I’ll make a model as it’s difficult to image that in a 2D drawing it otherwise I go straight to a material list and work out any problems as I go. Haven’t got stuck yet. My only problem has been putting projets to one side while working on paid commissions because of lack of room in my shop.

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